Freedom of speech is just one of the few undeniable rights that the First Amendment to the Constitution grants every American citizen.
As technology has evolved over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has had to re-interpret its very meaning that was unimagined by our countries forefathers. From radios to televisions, the possibilities in which Americans can communicate have tested its fundamentals.
On Tuesday Nov. 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin to listen to the first oral arguments in a case of technology that is very dear to many of this generation: video games.
The case, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association, relates to a 2005 California law which aims to regulate the sale and rental of “violent” computer and video games to minors.
So how does a law restricting the sale or rental of video games to minors infringe on the rights the First Amendment grants to everyone?
Like books, music and movies which are all protected under the First Amendment, video games contain the same type of artistic expression that these media contain. Furthermore establishing laws that place content-based bans on protected expressions directly violates this amendment.
The basis of California’s argument is on the grounds that violent video game leads to violence in minors. California also compares video games to pornography. In the U.S. Supreme Court case Ginsberg v. New York it was ruled that material such as pornography is harmful to children and gives the states the power to protect minors from such harms.
The fact is violence – let alone video game violence – has never been scientifically proven as harmful to minors. That is the main reason two lower courts of this case and twelve other courts in similar cases have already found age-based, content restriction laws unconstitutional.
As it stands right now, computer and video games are rated through the use of a self-regulatory body, The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), similar to what the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) does for the movie industry. The ESRB, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called the “most comprehensive” of all media rating systems, provides an already detailed, widely-used means in which violent games can be identified.
The FTC has further disclosed in reports that of all media-based (e.g., movies and music) rating system, the ESRB guidelines are upheld the most by retailers across the country.
The fact that California law makers are trying to pass a law restricting sales to minors should be very scary to anyone that values their freedom of expression. The vagueness of the law about what is and isn’t appropriate violence for minors and the singling out of these games, could have a significant effect on the creativity of game makers and make retailers reluctant to carry such games.
If this law is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, what is to stop lawmakers from regulating other forms of media – movies, television, music, books, the news – that contain acts of violence?
If California wants to protect minors from obtaining violent video games, constructing a law that potentially limits the freedoms of expressions of Americans is not the answer.
The proper tools are already in place for parents to prevent minors from purchasing or playing violent video games. California, as well as any other state government that wishes to protect minors, needs to educate and not enforce such restrictions that eliminate the responsibilities of parenting.
Education of the ESRB ratings through joint collaborations between the government and the ESRB is a start. Furthermore each major video game system currently has controls implemented that can limit the play of video games based on ratings. The ignorance of parents doesn’t mean a law should be put in place.
Hopefully the Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion that two lower courts have already agreed upon regarding this case. Video games are interactive stories that should be treated the same as all forms of expressive communication.